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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius posted a promising message yesterday, explaining the significance of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in expanding mental health coverage, while encouraging a national dialogue on mental health. This dialogue is imperative to increasing awareness around mental health, and diminishing the shame and misconceptions that all too often surround these issues.

The ACA, combined with previous mental health parity legislation, intends to expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for 62 million Americans. Secretary Sebelius openly recognized the hurdles that many Americans face when struggling with mental illness saying, “We cannot ignore the fact that 60 percent of people with mental health conditions and nearly 90 percent of people with substance use disorders don’t receive the care they need.”

A question I often wonder is, “Why haven’t these people been receiving the treatment they need?” I find that one reason is that there exists a lack of awareness, even among health professionals. Another reason I find that people are not receiving the treatment they deserve is because of the stigmas attached to mental illness. These pervasive stigmas have been around for a long time and they are incredibly difficult to erase. Yet another reason that people are prevented from getting treatment is that services and treatment are not readily available to the many Americans who desperately need them.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget commits to the allocation of resources for mental health intervention, prevention, education, and research initiatives. The 2014 budget supports programs designed to empower school based professionals with the tools necessary to identify early signs of mental health illness. In addition school-based prevention, the budget will invest in training more than 5,000 mental health professionals on how to identify mental illness, and refer patients to the appropriate services. The President’s budget proposes to enforce mental health parity and improve access to care. In line with the President’s executive order on gun control, Secretary Sebelius explains that “All new small group and individual private market plans will be required to cover mental health and substance use disorder services as part of the health care law’s Essential Health Benefits categories, and behavioral health benefits will be covered at parity with medical and surgical benefits.”

What does this mean for the coverage and appropriate treatment of eating disorders? Our hope is that as President Obama demands insurance companies to comply with parity, more and more individuals plagued by life-threatening eating disorders will have access to treatment. In order to make lasting change, mental health treatment must become universally available and affordable to all Americans.

It is essential that we lift the shame and stigma from this topic we call mental illness, and that we create a space for those who are suffering to feel comfortable and safe to reach out for help and treatment. Every person, no matter what their position or profession, has a special role to play in spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to seek treatment. When people gain access to the proper resources, we will begin to see that prevention works, treatment is effective, and people do recover. Until then, I will do everything I can to strengthen conversations around mental health and advocate for access to treatment and mental health parity. I hope you’ll join me in creating your own conversations and participating in advocacy.

See Secretary Sebelius’ blog here: